Project helps city’s homeless

Shrouded in the shadows of the derelict Coliseum’s overhanging parking garages, the corner of Orange and State streets belongs to New Haven’s past. At first glance, Liberty Safe Haven, the flagship building for an ambitious plan to provide permanent housing for the city’s chronic homeless, doesn’t improve the image. It is narrow and ramshackle, appearing far too small to house 33 homeless occupants, as well as a support staff — but that is exactly the plan for Liberty Safe Haven, a project that represents the frontier in supportive housing.

Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell declared Feb. 10 Liberty Safe Haven Day in recognition of the new facility. Residents will be moving in throughout the year.

Sarah Caldwell, the executive director of Liberty Community Services, the organization in charge of Liberty Safe Haven, said the results of supportive housing, where tested, have been inspiring.

“Supportive housing is increasingly being recognized as a life-saving solution to many of the issues of homelessness, giving encouragement to those facing the challenge of helping the under-served,” Caldwell said in a press release.

While Liberty Safe Haven is the private venture of an independent community service organization, Connecticut officials are embracing supportive housing as the most promising approach yet developed for ending homelessness. The idea is to take the chronically homeless out of temporary shelters and off the street and provide permanent rooms and a support staff for those recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.

Sheila Allen Bell, New Haven Community Services administrator, said supportive housing could ultimately be the solution for homelessness in the Elm City.

“It’s the only answer for the part of the population that uses the shelter system the most,” she said.

But for Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey ’04, Liberty Safe Haven’s dedication in February was bittersweet. He sees the project as an exciting harbinger of major advances in solving New Haven’s difficult homeless problem, but only when or if money and infrastructure become available.

“We need more things like Liberty Safe Haven,” Healey said. “It’s a tremendous facility, but as wonderful as Liberty Safe Haven is, it is unlikely to be replicated unless changes are made at the state and federal level.”

However, government officials both in Hartford and New Haven have recently expressed excitement about supportive housing initiatives aimed at conquering homelessness in Connecticut, a state boasting the highest per capita income in the union but also facing intractable urban poverty.

In her February 2005 budget proposal, Rell promised nearly $8 million over the next two years to fund 500 units of supportive housing in the state. New Haven officials have hired consultants and are actively discussing a 10-year plan to build 1,000 units of supportive housing in the city.

But even as city administrators propose solutions to homelessness, the problems are deepening. An escalation in property values has caused low income housing to become increasingly unaffordable. In some sectors, the city’s shelter system is stretched to the breaking point, filled with workers who cannot afford housing. Allen Bell said as much as 45 percent of the shelter population is employed.

“At minimum wage people have to work two full-time jobs to get an apartment, and that’s impossible,” former Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project Co-Coordinator Magni Hamso ’05 said.

Philip Goldson, who runs a camp for the homeless in the New Haven woods, said many homeless have given up on finding housing.

“I’ve been homeless in many cities,” Goldson said. “I rode the rails for two years in the Midwest and was homeless for an average of two weeks in any city. New Haven is the only place I’ve been where I knew there was no way I was going to get a room.”

None of this is entirely New Haven’s fault, even if the city’s high property values and poverty rates are part of the problem, Healey said. New Haven’s extensive shelter system draws a large homeless population from across the state, a migration that strains the city’s resources.

“New Haven funds more homeless services than all other Connecticut cities put together,” Healey said. “But that means there’s a strain on the city and a dearth of resources, and the city can only step up and do so much.”

But advocates and members of the homeless community claim that the city could do much more to help.

Amy Wojnarwsky ’07, co-coordinator of YHHAP, said the city has largely dissociated itself from homeless issues, leaving the homeless to a temporary shelter system laden with budget difficulties and constantly confronted with the risk of overcrowding.

“From simple things like overflow shelters, the city doesn’t seem to take an active role one way or the other,” Wojnarwsky said.

In September 2002, budget difficulties caused New Haven to close an overflow shelter on Cedar Street, leaving at least 75 homeless people without any shelter and provoking the homeless community to install a tent city on the New Haven Green throughout the winter.

Though Cedar Street reopened and contingency plans have since been developed for overcrowding in shelters, many in the homeless community have tried to break free of the shelter system altogether.

Frank Dean, a homeless man who helped found the advocacy group Respect Line five years ago, said his organization has been fighting the city for a long time to get possession of abandoned houses for the homeless.

“What we want to do is get empty houses, let homeless people fix them up, but [the] city doesn’t want to give them up,” Dean said.

Ward 10 Alderman Ed Mattison LAW ’68 said the chance to convert abandoned buildings into supportive housing may already be lost.

“The problem is there isn’t much abandoned housing left,” Mattison said. “Three years ago there were 2,500 abandoned housing units, now there’s fewer than 500, and half of those have something in the works.”

If New Haven homelessness has grown in the last decade — and Mattison said the number of homeless families has undoubtedly increased even in the last two years — supportive housing like Liberty Safe Haven may feasibly provide a long term solution.

That may be too little, too late for many in New Haven’s homeless community, but for Caldwell, it is more than a start.

“As we work to create long-term solutions for those in need, supportive housing offers a ray of hope that seems to be spreading, changing the desire to end homelessness from an idealistic goal to a realistic plan of action, with tangible results,” Caldwell said.

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